In conversation: Doug Howatt & Richard Pelletier

This past October saw the first ever Dark Angels workshop held in America. The American Foundation Course, led by tutors John Simmons and Richard Pelletier, took place over the Columbus Day weekend near New Bedford, Mass, home (for a while) to Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass. Ricketson’s Point House (see below) was our home for the weekend. Below, Richard chats with Doug Howatt, a Californian who was first to sign up. He was joined by John Jordan, Jessie Rump, John Burwell, Claire Bodanis, and Kristen Strauss.

Doug, you’ve been working professionally for a while. What was going on that made you seek out a workshop when you did? And why did you settle on Dark Angels?

Doug Howatt, Creative Director, Writing Hitachi Vantara – Dark Angel

I’ve always had a desire and some aptitude for writing, which I nurtured with my career in marketing until I landed a dedicated writing and editing role eight years ago. I did well but knew that professional structure would give me perspective to enhance my writing and explain or defend it more successfully. All I could find online were programs with clickbait promises that I could live the dream of freelance writing with a six-figure income and no boss. I was not impressed. Soon I stumbled on rave reviews on Twitter of the Dark Angels courses. I looked them up and was captured by the focus on business writing. Unfortunately, at the time the courses were all in Europe and, I was in California. I continued to see very positive reviews and checked back every so often until earlier this year I saw that an American Foundation course was available. I signed up right away.

All hail Twitter! And your persistence! I’m wondering about expectations. You write for a large corporation. Can you explain your thinking around what you hoped to gain specifically and how that might fit into your work at Hitachi?

I suppose I wanted new perspectives on my writing. Certainly, my marketing career gives me good perceptions of what makes copy good and how it should fit in with the rest of good marketing. But I also know the dangers of relying solely on my own experience and my own conclusions. In the heartache of wrestling with my words, or defending them against well-intentioned “help,” I sometimes wanted more ways to think about my writing. Call them principles, guidelines and strategies to break through my own barriers and, to explain and defend my work. It’s not a matter of large versus small companies. It’s a matter of arranging the letters on the page the best way I can.

{ Ricketson’s Point House ~ photography by @jbj51merc }

Did Dark Angels fulfill these rather unspecific expectations? Remarkably so. Among many insights, I saw the value of my own personal engagement in the copy. I learned that there need not be a wall dividing business writing from literature and private writing – they all have a place in the broad spectrum. I learned that the buzzwords of “authenticity” and “transparency” have honest roots in the vulnerability and humanity we need in branded content. The course – actually, you, John Simmons and my fellow fledgling Dark Angels – gave me quite a boost for my writing at work and at home.

{ The house at Ricketson’s point ~  photo by @jbj51merc }

This is great to hear — it’s what we hope for. I’ve had similar reactions, having been on both sides. I love “it’s a matter of arranging the letters on the page the best way I can.” I mentioned large corporations because it’s my sense (perhaps this is unfair) that it’s a steep challenge to persuade the C suite to embrace what we advocate in Dark Angels workshops. I wonder what your experience has been on this score. Have you been able to bring some Dark Angels magic into the projects you’re working on? And can you tell me about that in a haiku?

Haiku? Ever the Dark Angel instructor, aren’t you! Here you go:

Early, filled with hope.
Green light to write colleague tales.
Steps turn into strides.

You’re right that things are harder – though perhaps “slower” is the right idea – in a large company. There are more people to convince and train, and more things to write and rewrite. But the initial reaction from my managers has been enthusiastic. The Dark Angels magic has helped me frame a big new program of stories about our people, though nothing has seen the light of day just yet. I also recognize that I’ll never influence all the content that 10,000 employees produce, but I think I have a good shot at the important brand content.

Is that how you see the Dark Angels influence spread among your clients?

{ Listen: six Dark Angels, six haikus. }

It varies, but we’ve consistently heard from people who been through the experience, that it was a big deal for them, even life-changing. We’re now doing more in-house corporate workshops and those seem to provide as much inspiration as the residential version. So if you had to say, and I’m asking you now to look back on our time in October, what were three highlights from that weekend that you can put into a 62-word sestude?

1. I was astonished to learn that our guest speaker, author and brand expert Larry Vincent, uses unlikely literary forms such as the Malayan pantoum to discover and develop messages for his clients. He asks writers to work a brand’s top messages into the complicated repeating form and frequently finds fresh ways to express the brand’s ideas. This really is applying literature to business.

2. I discovered the power of my own words when I read them aloud to the group and more than once found myself choking up, with tears flowing. It shows the safe environment you and John Simmons created that weekend and the strength of the writing exercises you gave us. Of course, we laughed a lot, too. Quite a lot, in fact.

3. The biggest highlight for me was a rediscovered passion for writing. Yes, I learned tools and perspectives that I can apply back at work. But seeing other writers – masters and word wrights – playing with words and ideas, discussing literature and how words work made quite an impression on me. It changed writing from an intellectual challenge back to an emotional joy.

Thanks, Doug. This was brilliant and fun. We’re running the American Foundation Course again next fall, so tell your friends. 🙂

{ Interior of Ricketson’s Point House ~ photo by @jbj51merc }

In Conversation: Stuart Delves & Samm Short


Stuart Delves

Stuart Delves and Samm Short remember how last year’s advanced course was a little bit different – blending writing and yoga in the house overlooking the sierra.

Samm, you began your Dark Angels journey on a Starter Day in Strawberry Hill. How did you find that day?

Darkly fun. I hadn’t really appreciated how important a sense of place is to DA, and was thrilled to find myself somewhere as odd as Strawberry Hill House. I also wasn’t prepared for how kooky some of the writing activities were, and was happily taken by surprise by what we were asked to do, and in such wicked time restraints. I wrote, and when I got home I re-wrote, and the simple pleasure of being with language again was beautiful.

Samm Short

I think perhaps because I was teaching – for want of a better word – around that time, I’d forgotten what it was like to just write without a goal. I’d allowed a gap to forge between what I was prompting others to do, and what I was doing myself. So to write for the pure fun of it, with no product or plan in sight was like rediscovering a childhood wonder. Of course the beauty of that kind of writing is that is nearly always triggers something ‘useful’ (I re-read my website with a mixture of horror and fascination that night), – but I was much more thrilled by the fact I’d written a poem, and a spooky one at that.

Your writing had impressed the tutors, John and Elen, and Neil also knew your work, plus the fact that you also taught yoga. So we hatched a plan. Or rather they suggested I hatch a plan. They thought you were up to going straight on to the Advanced Course in Spain. And what about adding in a bit of yoga on the fringes of the day? Well that’s what we did. Before asking you how you thought the yoga fitted in, tell me how you found Spain and Finca El Tornero – a very specially selected Dark Angels place.

The Finca was magical. In the evenings we sat around the fire drinking wine and listening to jazz, and it was straight out of a Woody Allen screenplay – ‘A group of ambitious writers met at an old Finca in the hills of Seville…’; it felt like anything could happen.

In the mornings we’d wake up and wander into the kitchen with the smell of fresh coffee – thank you Richard! – and then out into the sunny courtyard with pen, paper and a whole heap of curiosity.

I’d been working as a freelance copywriter and writing tutor for two years at that point, and was used to being stuck at my desk, writing hard to meet deadlines and bring in work. I rarely found time to reflect on what I was writing and whether there were ways of making it more effective, and more enjoyable to do. Being at the finca provided much needed breathing space, and a boost to my motivation.

It was also a particularly poignant introduction to Spain; after the course I drove down to meet my parents at our new home just outside Malaga. It was our last viewing before moving out there a month later, to set up a retreat centre for yoga, art and writing.

I hope that is going well and I’m sure you weave together the three disciplines seamlessly. How did you find the yoga practice combined with the Dark Angels course? You certainly had a few enthusiasts joining the morning sessions!

It was such a beautiful way to start the day. For me yoga is a way of moving away from the self-limiting, overly-rational mind, and submerging into something deeper and more instinctual. I find it helps me to get out of my own way, and be more intuitive and present with whatever life throws at me – and as a freelance copywriter that’s essential!

When I write – whether for a client’s funding bid or a personal poem – my internal censor can kick in almost instantly, strangling the words before they have a chance to be born. Doing a physical and focussing practice beforehand can set the mind-body-heart system up so that censor has less of a grip, and we can perhaps be a little braver in our writing. We’re surrounded by words – and sometimes we need to shake things up a bit to find new ways of communicating with them.

In the morning sessions we started with a quote by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi – his words never cease to amaze me on a poetic but also on a spiritual level. And we tried an afternoon walking meditation too– one fellow writer found the missing last line to his chapter in that session, which was a great example of how these practices can complement each other.

But I’m obviously biased! How was it from your point of view?

I thought it was a really nice addition and contributed to the reflective atmosphere of Finca El Tornero. Because we choose secluded retreat settings for our courses there is always a hint of the monastic, where physical exercises were traditionally used to aid contemplation, yoga and tai chi in the East and the perambulation of cloisters in the West.

The relationship between movement and writing has often been a fascinating topic of discussion that arises within Dark Angels. A lot of people who come on our courses from the corporate world are runners. And many are dedicated walkers. I particularly enjoyed the walking meditation, barefoot in the sun kissed grass.

A tip I often give, particularly when running in-house workshops in corporate settings is “Get up from your desk. Go for a walk, around the square or park if you can, or to the water cooler at the vey least.” Movement shifts thought. Being glued to the keyboard eight hours a day is antithetical to creativity.

Andalucia was a great place to bring in the yoga practice. One of the things that keeps me enthralled by Dark Angels is the openness to development. The year before last in Aracena we joined the annual pilgrimage out from the town into the countryside following an ox-drawn cart bearing a candle-lit effigy of the Virgin. It was a beautiful, affecting experience. Then last year, along with your yoga, Neil took a group to an outlying village along the old cobbled and shaded donkey tracks that criss-cross the Sierra. You’re right – anything can happen. Like a good Rioja, as Dark Angels matures, the mix gets richer. Thank you Samm for helping to make last year’s course so special.

Dark Angels in Conversation

Writing and place
Co-founder John Simmons in conversation with Associate Partner, Richard Pelletier

John to Richard

Place is always important to any writer. I mean a number of things by that. First, the places we go where the surroundings inspire writing, such as the locations for our courses. But second, and what I’d like to talk about here…the places where – after we return home from a Dark Angels experience – we find we are best able to write.

SKAKESPEARE AND COMPANY “…an estimated 30,000 aspiring writers have bunked at Shakespeare’s over the decades, sleeping on intermittently bedbug-infested cots and benches scattered throughout the store in exchange for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing…”

I was thinking as well that people often arrive at one of our courses feeling uncertain, perhaps questioning “Am I a writer?” But in most cases they leave saying quietly but confidently “Yes, I am a writer”. So where do we then choose to write? A coffee shop in town or a shed in the garden? I’m always fascinated to hear from other writers, and to visit the houses where, for example, Dickens, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway wrote. Perhaps they shed light on our own writing practices?

Richard to John

Place is magic. I once lived a couple doors away from the lifelong home of H.L. Mencken, possibly the greatest American stylist after Mark Twain. The decision to live there was deliberate. Outside my windows: the H.L. Mencken fountain, encircled by bronze replicas of his books. What a place to begin writing, inspired by the man who said: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” (Also: Edgar Allen’s Poe’s house was a few blocks away.)

I remember visiting Monticello. I was awed by Thomas Jefferson’s writing ‘cabinet’ as he called his office. This was a space wholly dedicated to writing, to words. But you just could not escape the shackles – the monstrosity of the slave quarters.

That’s a long way from Stumptown Café, where I spent several good hours yesterday, strangely impervious to noise and music, working on my book. What sorts of conditons inspire you? And whose writing spaces have you seen?

John to Richard

I try to visit writers’ houses wherever I go – or places associated with writers. A visit to New Bedford was a perfect accompaniment to reading Moby-Dick as it’s Melville’s whaling town and the place where the Seaman’s Chapel is.

But the place I love most as a writer’s house is Milton’s Cottage on the outskirts of London (Chalfont St Giles was deep in the countryside when Milton escaped the plague there in the mid-17th century). It’s a poky little house, low-ceilinged, dark – I wrote about it in a book called Common Ground.

Milton’s Cottage

The upstairs was inaccessible except by a rope, and that’s where the women of Milton’s household had their bedrooms. Milton by then was blind and infirm, so he never went upstairs, but he wrote the story of Paradise Lost, with its scenes of Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden in this tiny space. Perhaps not having sight helped him imagine.

The lesson I took out of that is you can write anywhere. Roald Dahl’s shed and Dylan Thomas’ boathouse were very confined spaces. You don’t need to get your writing conditions spacious or luxurious, so I now enjoy writing in coffee shops, the British Museum, the Royal Academy and even on the London Underground. You forget where you are – except I find the buzz of noise and conversation in the background helps me focus more on my writing. And there’s home, of course, with different spaces. Do you have a room at home where you write?

Richard to John

(As you know, I grew up next door to New Bedford, the location for our proposed first Dark Angels America course.)

Yes, I do have a writing space at home, but it’s not ideal. I wish I could write anywhere. A lot depends on what I’m working on. Right now my new writing home is a godsend. It’s downtown, a 25-minute walk from my apartment. Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum. (I’m there so much, they put me on the website’s home page.)

Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum

The Athenaeum is a Ben Franklin idea and is a kind of private library, a ‘community of the book’ for readers and writers. This room is where I work, usually alone. (I’m writing some of this at Folio.) Bookcases packed with literature, sunlight streaming through, good coffee nearby. The staff is friendly and warm and helpful — very inspiring place. I share the sentiment of several Seattle writers who told Folio staff that they were maxed out on cafes.

You and I spent some time together at the Royal Academy working on one of these conversations. What a thrill that was. You’re a man on the move — all over town and across the continent. I’m impressed that you can write anywhere. Keeping that in mind, how do you think about your own lovely writing loft and the role it plays in your writing?

John to Richard

Strangely, perhaps, I use it sparingly. I keep it for best, as my mother would have said. That means Friday nights – reserved for writing for the last three decades as a now ingrained habit. So of course it’s now Friday evening and I’m in my loft, writing this to you. Outside the window a big black night sky, below at the horizon the lights of London; inside the loft I’m listening to Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano while writing. As opposed to writing ‘anywhere’, this is my space, I’m enclosed and I find it easy to concentrate here in a way that is never as intense at any other time or any other place in the week. This rounds off my week – but time zone differences, you still have much of the day before you.

 Richard to John

Above Loch Torridon

Time and place — among the eternal concerns of writers. Lovers, too. It was a couple of hours drive from Moniack Mhor. The last nine to ten miles on a winding, one track road with steep drops on either side. I’d just become a made man in our little society. Heart full, head happy. And I found myself, with my love, my wife, in a glorious cottage high above the Loch. Soon I was writing outside, in the swaying, rustling trees. And the breeze that day, let me tell you about the smell of the wind off the water, and the warmth of the sun, and the way the sunlight sparkled and fell on the worn planks under my feet…

Dark Angels in Conversation December 2016

Lucy Beevor at Loughcrew, Ireland on an Intensive Foundation course.

Dark Angels Associate Partner Gillian Colhoun chats with student-writer, Lucy Beevor.

Gillian to Lucy

It was wonderful to spend those few days with you at Loughcrew. Tell me, did you have any expectations of what you wanted to get out of the course?

Lucy to Gillian

Ah, Gillian, they were magical days! It was fantastic to meet you, John and Mike – three of the Dark Angel magicians – and my fellow white rabbits, Mike, Fiona, Emily, Olive and Megan.

My expectations?….I tried not to have any expectations at all. I often imagine myself forwards into all sorts of situations and then get disappointed when what I’ve convinced myself will happen doesn’t (I obviously haven’t mastered the technique of visualisation, ahem). So, this time, I made a conscious effort not to anticipate what I would get out of it.  It would be a step into the unknown. 

Having said that, I did get rid of a concern early on – that ‘it was a course for people writing for business’. How would that be relevant to me, when here I was, turning my back on 20 years of writing for organisations, and wanting to dig deeper into my own fictional writing, poetry etc? I was really lucky to speak to you about the course well in advance,and of course was inspired by Thérèse Kieran, who writes poetry and has done the Foundation and Advanced courses.  She assured me that the course was as relevant to me as it was to two marketing consultants, a strategy director, start-up business leader and mobile app developer (my fellow white rabbits).

Gillian to Lucy

You’re right. Dark Angels is like a lighthouse to many kinds of writers. Perhaps that’s part of its magic, not knowing how the mix of experience, exercises and sensibilities will work together.  I was particularly interested in your thoughts since I know you’ve participated in different kinds of creative writing workshops and courses. How did the Intensive Foundation course compare with those?

Lucy to Gillian

The immersiveness of the Foundation course sets it apart from other courses I’ve done. You created a ‘bubble’ for us – a beautiful location, we didn’t have to think about any practicalities – food and drink were all provided (copiously) – and you rolled us on from one writing exercise to the next.  We didn’t have space to hesitate so I kept leaping in; there wasn’t time for me to let those gremlins jump into my mind and undermine what I was doing so I kept going. I thought the course was beautifully planned.

Also you ‘magicians’ didn’t critique our work at all. That was another difference. The writing courses I’ve done – weekly classes, one-off workshops and a weekend workshop –  have had an expectation of the tutor judging participants’ work, to varying degrees. You, John and Mike were very supportive but you weren’t there to tell us if our writing was good or bad. Instead, it seemed that by managing the different experience and sensibilities of the participants, you created a space – a laboratory perhaps – in which we could each experiment and test and pull and stretch our own styles of writing, see where it took us.

Gillian to Lucy

Your analogy of experimenting in the laboratory feels like an accurate one. I’m glad you felt that Dark Angels provided a safe space to go and explore aspects of your writing without fear of judgment. 

I always think that a testament to any kind of creative immersion is if it inspires us to write more freely. Have you managed to find time to write anything since you have returned?

Lucy to Gillian

Yes! And the freedom I’ve found has come from the constraints I learned on the course.  Particularly summarising what I’m trying to write in 12 words.  That really helps me get to the nub of the pieces I’ve written since.  Oh and I’ve just completed a prose sonnet (inspired by yours) that I’m submitting to a competition. So yes, definitely writing. Thank you.

Ed. note: Lucy’s prose sonnet, inspired by Gillian’s prose sonnet, was inspired by Jamie Jauncey’s prose sonnet, which was inspired by Richard Pelletier’s prose sonnet, which was inspired by Sherman Alexie’s utterly amazing prose sonnet, called Sonnet, with Bird. You can read it here —>

A Highland writers’ retreat where guests learn to bring the outside in … and onto the page


Moniack Mhor, Scotland's Creative Writing Centre
Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre

James Morgan, Deputy Sports Editor of The Herald

THERE is the beginning of a grey mizzle, and the scrunch of autumn resonates underfoot as a few cars park up, their lights briefly illuminating a house in the distance. There is a figure in the doorway then it disappears into the warmth inside. And, now, I am that figure outside the front door of Moniack Mhor, a writing retreat of some renown whose luminaries include Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, just a tentacle-length from the banks of Loch Ness.

It took me almost four hours driving north to reach this converted steading near Kiltarlity in the Highlands. And looking back now, a fortnight later, I can’t quite remember what that door looked like. In any case, it has far greater symbolism than the mere components of its form. I took my clothes off on the step outside and stood naked in front of it, the late October chill nipping at my shoulders. Figuratively speaking, of course. Inside I found the marrow-warming embrace of fellow men and women, who had similarly left their inhibitions on this doorstep. It was not what I had expected from a five-day residential course in business writing. But then this wasn’t just any business writing course, this was a Dark Angels production.

Formed in 2004, Dark Angels was the brainchild of John Simmons, Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey, a trio of writers who were alarmed at the growing tendency to tangle up words in jargon-infested webs. The latter is the author of five books, a natural storyteller and an inspirational figure who will guide us during the week.

“On one hand we think management speak is, at its very worst, toxic,” Jamie says. “It’s bad for people’s emotional health. Yes, it’s a crusade against that but we prefer to laugh and throw stones at it. The biggest sin of management speak is that it alienates rather than connects.”

Jamie is joined by Neil Baker, a former Fleet Street journalist who fell out of love with newspapers, if not crafting words themselves. Today, he says he writes what he wants to write and for whom he chooses.

There are six students: John, another Jamie, Lana, Sarah, Cameron and myself. We will bare our souls to each other as we pick over parts of our lives like scavengers searching for untold treasures. I find myself asking what all this has to do with business writing but it is clear Jamie and Neil are following a tried-and-trusted formula.

Our first day begins in what Jamie refers to as “the hobbit house”, a white rotunda propped on stone bricks and adorned with a grassy roof. It is straight from the pages of Tolkien and will be our writing base for the week. Our eyrie provides an astonishing vista, overlooking the mountain ranges of Ben Wyvis and Strathfarrar. In the foreground Highland cattle and sheep graze on the surrounding moorland.

A Red Kite rises and falls on the wave of a northerly wind. We are encouraged to bring the outside in. The great philosophers understood that if we can empathise with our habitat we can come to know truth and truth is not found in the mangled wreckage of a soul-crushing press release or company mission statement. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, however, were strangely silent on the nuances of tone and clarity in business communication. And that’s where the Dark Angels, who take their name from Milton’s Paradise Lost, step in.

The Angels set a frenetic pace as they chuck ideas at us: from discussing our favourite books to writing the introduction to someone else’s. A pattern is established: one emphasising verbal gymnastics, quick-thinking, impossible deadlines. The key is not to overthink things – overthinking leads to ambiguity, to contrivance and self-censorship.

The tasks become quite personal. We are mining the deposits of memories long since forgotten. Under duress, it is disconcerting to rediscover those lost truths. And yet, it is cathartic, too. There are tears, most suppressed to the rims of eyelids. Others are unable to withstand the flood. This feels unsettling but it also feels necessary. We are unburdening ourselves and relearning what it is to feel empathy in what we write.

Neil quotes the poet Robert Frost’s thoughts on writing: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

After a hard day’s craft, the wine and beer is brought out. Dinner is cooked by the students. I have been paired with Lana, who works for a community foundation in London. She wants to enliven her writing in a way which contrasts with my efforts to spruce up some cod in breadcrumbs. With enough wine in their bellies, the rest of the group graciously admit that dinner has been a success.

Nights follow a familiar pattern: a log fire and a dram, ghost stories, life stories, travel adventures in far-flung corners and sing songs until the early hours. John even hosts a wine-tasting evening.

After a day of fresh Highland air, I retire to my Spartan chamber. It is monastic: a tiny bed, one table, two lamps. But this is a place for reflection and, crucially, sleep. On most nights, the former triumphs over the latter but there is a simplicity to life here that is as reassuring as the blanket that is too short to cover my feet.

The next day, the deeply personal recollections are locked away in tea chests and the Angels focus on business. There is a realisation that the navel-gazing had to occur. There has been a cleansing of the mind, a silencing of the noise in order that we can be more attuned to the task at hand. And, there is a new-found sense of what it means to appeal to the reader’s emotions.

The other Jamie, a recent graduate, has come to Dark Angels for some direction on where he might go next in his career. It is clear from the off that he has a great gift for words. During one task, he replaces a vast tract of tedious copy about the environment, waste disposal and its impact, with the word “rainforest”.

Sarah, a public sector employee, says she has become stale in her work because of the constraints it places on her writing. She wishes her employer would give thought to sending people like her on a similar course. John, a former senior officer with a local council, continues the theme.

“Everything came to be seen through a single lens and reports all came to read like each other,” he adds. “It is unconsciously Orwellian. I think people have been clogged up in the machine. It ultimately affects the way you think.”

In the afternoon we are free to stroll the single-track roads or hire bikes to traverse the surrounding area. We are on the edge of a forest; to the east, a llama farm stretches out before us.

I am suddenly aware of how little I know of the flora around me. My companion, Cameron, a former journalist and now a translator, agrees that it would be beneficial to know the names of the trees we see. There are certainly fir trees but others are yellowing, some are brown, and they appear to be dying. I’m struck by the idea that I have been hearing but not listening to the world around me, looking but not actually seeing it.

As the week ends, I sense I have changed. There is a resolution to adhere to the principles the Dark Angels live by: to write more, to think more, to breathe more cool air and to fly high above the trees I will soon know the names of.

I have been given wings, after all.

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